Billy Joel – The Bridge

Billy Joel was such a versatile artist, he never needed to change his style to keep having hit records. They were always universally appealing.

Like Billy Joel’s previous records, “The Bridge” was filled with a huge array of musical styles and influences. A few of those musical influences appear with Joel on this, his tenth studio album. Ray Charles adds his unmistakable bluesy piano and voice to the song “Baby Grand” and Steve Winwood’s Hammond B3 helps Joel cut loose on “Getting Closer”, the rocking closer on the album.

Surprisingly, neither of those two songs were hits off of “The Bridge”, although “Baby Grand” was released as the fourth single from it. I don’t think Billy Joel was too concerned about that song’s lackluster sales. “The Bridge” still gave the entertainer three top 20 hits with “Modern Woman”, “This Is the Time” and my personal favorite from the album, “A Matter of Trust”. That song will always have special meaning to me as I was getting over some trust issues I had at that time in my life. It was the reason I had to buy “The Bridge” when I first heard it.

Rory Gallagher – Photo-Finish

If there was ever such a thing as Irish blues, Rory Gallagher would be the king.

Photo-Finish is Gallagher’s ninth album. A return to his more stripped down sound of a power trio, this album showcases just what an incredible guitarist Rory Gallagher was. The song writing is solid and Gallagher’s playing is top-notch throughout, every now and then feeding a little Irish flavor into his solos. There isn’t a throw away track anywhere on this album.

Album after album, Rory Gallagher always played his brand of a no-compromise blues rock. Although he may not have sold as many albums or be as widely known as some of his contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, he was right up there with them when it came to song writing and six-string talent. As a matter of fact, both Clapton and Page have cited Rory Gallagher as an influence to their playing.

Janis Joplin – Pearl

Not every artist achieves their true masterpiece. In 1971, Janis Joplin released her true masterpiece. Sadly, she died three months before it came out. She was only 27.

Janis had one of the most soulful and passionate voices in rock and roll. I wouldn’t say it was a good voice, at least not by traditional standards, but Janis knew how to use it to wring every ounce of emotion out of any song.

Two of the most memorable songs on “Pearl” are “Me and Bobby McGee”, a song penned by Kris Kristofferson, and the a capella “Mercedes Benz”. The latter is the last song Janis recorded; she died three days later from a drug overdose.

Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

Joe Cocker!

There are singers, and there are interpreters.

Interpreters are a rare breed of singers. Interpreters don’t need to write their own songs, although they do on occasion; they make any song they sing their own. Interpreters can choose a song that you think could never be done by anyone except the band that first wrote, performed, and made it popular, and turn it into something totally original. They make it unforgettably their own.

Joe Cocker is an interpreter.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

I have a bit of extra time this morning before work, so I figured I’d put on a double album. Not just any double album, but one of the heavy hitters of rock and roll; a double album that anyone who loves rock and roll needs to listen to before they die.

With its combination of rock, blues, jazz, funk, and psychedelia, “Electric Ladyland” had numerous hit songs for The Jimi Hendricks Experience including their most successful song, “All Along the Watchtower”, a cover version of a Bob Dylan song. Bob Dylan also had a hit earlier with his folk oriented version of the song.

Jimi Hendrix was very much known for being a perfectionist in the studio. With the recording of “Electric Ladyland” Chaz Chandler became so frustrated with the multiple takes Hendrix was demanding (drummer Mitch Mitchell reportedly recorded at least 50 takes for one of the songs) the producer of The Experience’s previous records quit near the beginning of the “Electric Ladyland” sessions, prompting Hendrix produce the album himself. Hendrix’s perfectionism obviously paid off, as this third and final album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was their most successful record.

Because of the cost and hassle of booking studio time for all the takes Hendrix demanded during the recording of Electric Ladyland, Hendrix decided to build his own recording studio of the same name afterwards. Unfortunately, Hendrix would record only one song at the Electric Ladyland studio – the short but sweet instrumental “Slow Blues” – before his untimely death in 1970. The song remained unreleased until its inclusion in a retrospective Jimi Hendrix Experience box set that was released in 2000.

The Rockets – No Ballads

The Rockets were a Detroit band from the late ’70s that most Detroiters at the time felt were destined for national stardom. For some reason that success eluded them.

Detroit was a hotbed for rock and roll in vinyl’s golden era. Many bands from in and around the city went on to achieve national and even international success. The ’60s brought noteriety to bands like the MC5, Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, The Amboy Dukes and Mitch Ryder. And of course, you can’t forget all the soulful Motown groups who topped the record charts in the ’60s, going into the ’70s.

Bob Seger, and Alice Cooper were also local Detroit favorites in the late ’60s whose popularity exploded nationally in the following decade. The 1970s also saw Grand Funk, Brownsville Station, Ted Nugent (who left the Amboy Dukes), Suzi Quatro, and the Romantics break onto the national music scene.

The Rockets, featuring former members of the Amboy Dukes and Mitch Ryder’s band, The Detroit Wheels, had a hard-edged blues rock sound that was immediately recognizable and made them one of the most popular bands on the local scene. Their locally distributed debut, “Love Transfusion” came out in 1977. It’s local popularity immediately earned them a major label record deal with RSO records, putting them on the same label as British blues rock legend Eric Clapton. Despite little promotion, their first album on RSO scored them two minor national hits, “Oh Well” a gritty version of an old Fleetwood Mac song, and the title track off the album, “Turn Up the Radio”.
It seemed national noteriety was just over the horizon for them with their follow-up album.

When “No Ballads” came out, radio stations immediately picked up on the songs “Desire”, “Takin’ It Back” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sally Can’t Dance” making the album even more successful than their previous one … well, in Detroit anyway. RSO was having financial problems and did nothing to promote the record. With the lack of airplay on radio stations outside of Michigan and a national audience only vaguely familiar with who the Rockets were, “No Ballads” pretty much fizzled nationally. RSO eventually went defunct, leaving the Rockets without a national record label. They were picked up by Electra Records, but any momentum they had was stalled. They released three more albums after “No Ballads” that also did well in and around Detroit, but failed to gain any traction nationally.

I have all six albums by the Rockets in my collection and always will. To this day, they remain one of my all-time favorite bands. I alway feel a touch of melancholy when I listen to any of their records because I am reminded of how great their music is and how much more success they deserved.

Santana – Abraxas

Q. What do you get when you combine Latin rhythms, psychedelic rock, and one the best guitarists of all time?

A. The second album by Santana, 1970’s “Abraxas”.

Like many artists, Santana’s music has changed through the years, morphing with the times. No matter what era you of Santana you listen to, one constant is the infusion Latin, blues, jazz, and rock and roll music.

Santana went into the studio to record “Abraxas” shortly after performing what was one of the most highly regarded performances at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival (considered by many to be second only to the unforgettable closing set by Jimi Hendrix). Consequently, the band’s confidence level was high (as were the band members themselves most likely) resulting in what is arguably the best of Santana’s early work.

Although the cover artwork perfectly fits the Latin and psychedelic feeling of Santana’s music on this album, it was actually painted by a German born artist, Mati Klarwein. The painting, which wraps around to fill half of the back cover as well, is considered by many to be one of the best album covers of all time. Because of its extravagant detail, it can only be truly appreciated in the larger size of the original 12 inch vinyl.

The J. Geils Band – Monkey Island

So what do you do when you signed a contract with a new record label but still owe your current label one more album? If you’re The J. Geils Band, you make a record that departs from what you’ve done before and try something new. What have you got to lose?

Even though it still sounded like The J. Geils Band, “Monkey Island” deviated heavily from the influences the band drew from on their six previous records. Perhaps to mark the departure in style, the band chose to shorten their name to simply “Geils” for “Monkey Island”. It is the only record of theirs to use this abbreviated name. It’s also the only album that they used a horn section, a group of background singers, and a string section.

Departing from the sound of their previous albums, “Monkey Island” plays more heavily on funk and soul than any other album Geils ever did before or after. They even try their hand (rather successfully) at a little doo-wop, with the song “I Do”. Although never released as a single, that song became a radio mainstay in the Detroit area, where Geils had their strongest following outside of their hometown of Boston. A live single of “I Do” would later be released from The J. Geils Band’s third and final live album, “Showtime”. Appropriately, that version was recorded at Pine Knob Music Theater near Detroit.

Although “Monkey Island” remains one of the least commercially successful albums by the J. Geils Band, probably because of it straying from what was expected from them at the time, it remains one of my favorite albums by them, for that very same reason.

Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits

Americana.

That’s perhaps the best way to refer to Willie Nelson’s music. Yes, you’ll probably have to tune into a country radio station to hear his songs, but Willie goes far beyond country. The songs he writes are so ingrained with the roots of what America truly was, is, and hopefully will be for years to come.

Willie Nelson has always written his songs from a place deep in his heart. And when he performs a song written by somebody else he always makes the song his own, like it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Even though you know he’s not the first to play and sing a particular song, his becomes a definitive version of the song.

Although Willie Nelson is considered to be a country music performer. Even to tag him as one the pioneering artist who defines “outlaw country” seems a disservice. Willie Nelson’s music is beyond that. It defines itself; just as it defines the innocence and pride, the trials and tribulations, the sentimentality and hope of what can only be referred to as “Americana”.